Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatina for flute and piano
by Anja Weinberger
For me, this work has a special meaning because it was the first “modern” work that I prepared completely and ready for performance as a student.
From about my 15th birthday, I had a very dedicated and empathetic teacher who encouraged me every year to participate in the “Jugend musiziert” competition. At that time, the usual works in the “modern music” section were a movement from Hindemith’s or Bresgen’s Sonata, or possibly Honegger’s rather short Danse de la chêvre. More recent French flute music was rarely heard, perhaps because the emphasis was quite clearly on the other two divisions, “Baroque” and “Classical,” which also had to be covered. This has, of course, changed completely in recent years.
In this year described above, however, we – my teacher and I – together chose Bach’s E major Sonata, Mozart’s G major Concerto and precisely Dutilleux’s Sonatine pour flûte. In order to be able to play them and still not exceed the time limit, we had to make sure that the two movements of works by Bach and Mozart did not get too long. So we left quite a large part to “modernity”, which was rather unusual, exciting and not entirely harmless at that time, because the jury might have liked to hear more baroque or classical music?
However, I had no idea about all this and was simply thrilled. Anyway, my teacher at the time was a great role model for me. His flute sound, his way of teaching, but also his way of life impressed me extraordinarily and I trusted him without hesitation.
To make a long story short: Dutilleux took up a lot of time, not only in terms of time, but also in terms of the necessary rehearsal work and the hours that I, as a high school student, could spend practicing. For me, it was a completely new world at the time, and I immediately fell in love with it. Probably this was also the pedagogical approach of my refined teacher, because in order to master the Dutilleux Sonatina purely technically, I had to practice, practice, practice. Thus, I achieved a fantastically high score in the regional competition and the completely unexpected advancement to the next level of competition lay ahead of me.
Henri Dutilleux was born in 1916 in the beautiful town of Angers. Angers is located between the rivers Loire and Maine and has besides the picturesque river landscape also a magnificent cathedral to offer. But unfortunately, that doesn’t belong here right now.
Henri came from a family of artists and began learning piano, harmony and counterpoint as a schoolboy. In 1933 he was admitted to study at the Conservatoire de Paris, winning the Prix de Rome and many other prizes. In 1942 Dutilleux became choral director at the Opéra and from 1945 to 1963 was director of music production at French radio.
He achieved his international musical breakthrough with the 1st Symphony in 1951.
The Sonatina is one of Dutilleux’s very early works. It was written as a commission for the 1943 Concours and is dedicated to the flutist Gaston Crunelle, who was then a professor at the Conservatoire. Unfortunately, it remains Dutilleux’s only work for flute.
There is something astonishing to report about this, for which a little digging is needed:
Dutilleux the man was extraordinarily modest, did not like to be talked about his numerous prizes, and did not like it when one of his works had greater success than others.
The new Flute Sonatina of 1943 was immediately adopted into the repertoire, is still very popular today, and is played far more often than any other of his works. Dutilleux, however, does not let his canon of works begin until the Sonata for Piano of 1947.
Since the Sonatina is an early work, one notices influences from Honegger and Roussel. Perhaps this bothered him, for as a composer Dutilleux tried throughout his life to stay away from fashionable trends.
Unfortunately, I have found his own sentences on this only in an English translation: “I had written[…] some pieces commissioned by Claude Delvincourt, then the director of the Conservatory. He had a double aim: to make young composers explore instrumental technique […] and, at the same time, to force instrumental students to work on new scores, which Delvincourt wanted to be full of traps and technical difficulties. This is how I came to write, one after the other, pieces for bassoon, flute, oboe, and trombone; the flute piece is the Sonatine for flute and piano, which has been recorded many times abroad, although I have never wanted it to be recorded in France because it doesn’t yet sound really like my music. But I haven’t put any embargo on that.”
And indeed, the Sonatina has little in common with the composer’s later works. Its harmonic structures are relatively simple and do not yet reach the maturity of the works of the older Dutilleux. However, it is so elegant, flexible in meter and dynamics, and simply beautiful, that it remains in the standard repertoire of flutists to this day. Of course!
The sonatina begins in 7/8 time, in unison in two-part piano. After a few notes, the material necessary for the entire work is heard.
Four measures later, the flute part interweaves with the pianist’s two hands, now acting independently, and soon the flute, too, is sounding the floating 7/8 theme. One notices that one of Dutilleux’s teachers was Philippe Gaubert, the greatest of the flutists between the two world wars. For the flute part of the Sonatina lies very well, though it seems heavy in purely visual terms.
Now terse suggestions emerge in both instruments, perhaps evoking a memory of Oriental or Impressionist pictorial compositions.
This little interlude lasts only a short time and leads back to the opening chant, which this time leads into a shimmering 16th- and 32nd-note conclusion, only to begin again calmly from the beginning.
If one takes the trouble to count, there are usually 9 bars of the 7/8 theme, each of which then chooses a different progression. And also this time it is so. The piano begins, the flute joins in, both together take up several rhythmic variants of the 7-bar, and then head for a first fermata. In the process, the piano part thins out to a few dappled unison sounds, and the flute rises from the lowest depths via double-tongue sounds up into the top register. “Avec une grande legéreté” the composer demands, meaning “with great ease.”
A beautiful flute cadenza follows, inventing a whole new dotted motive. “Avec Fantasie” is what Dutilleux wants, and of course we take great pains to comply. The pianist, or in my case the pianist, picks up the flutist at the end of the cadenza and leads into a quiet, expressive Andante.
This middle section initially rests on steady syncopated piano basses and then becomes more restless over moving eighth notes populated by triplets.
Quickly the calm is over, the dotted cadential rhythm of the flute reappears and catapults the two musicians into the final section.
“Animé” it is titled, meaning “lively” and that is true! A 16th-note tapestry, woven by the pianist, picks up the flute’s higher 16th notes, which also include 32nd notes in their playing.
All flute notes between c1 and c 4 are included in the merry round dance. Here we have arrived at the point that demands particularly good technique from the flutist. Because even in the lowest register, around d1, the flutist has to create smooth 16th note triplets; not so easy, because all this is done with the right little finger only.
Finally, the pianist takes pity and takes over the Animé theme, and the flutist once again recalls the quiet sounds in the Andante. Not long and the roles are exchanged again. It is restless and metrically confusing.
We are now rescued from this one-way street by another short but very virtuosic cadenza, which in turn ends in the 16th-note triplets already described above. This time, however, it is not a one-way street, but the soaring, jubilant and highly virtuosic final ascent of an exciting journey. Flute and piano throw the ball to each other once more and finally wrap it up together.
Always an experience!